Exploring the Sciences

Brain Matters

Computer Models as a Future Tool in Diagnosing Brain Injuries

brainAccording to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, approximately 1.4 million people experience a traumatic brain injury and 50,000 people die from head injuries annually. More than 5 million Americans who have survived traumatic brain injuries need ongoing help in performing daily activities.

UNC Mathematical Sciences Professor Dr. Igor Szczyrba and his team of researchers, including Dr. Martin Burtscher, Texas State University at San Marcos, and Mr. Rafal Szczyrba, M.Sc., Funiosoft LLC (and Dr. Szczyrba’s son), have been conducting investigations for the past decade in how traumatic brain injuries unfold. The general idea behind the research is that the interface of mathematics and computers provides an effective way to represent how brain matter or brain tissue behaves during accidents.

The research has evolved and is currently being applied in collaboration with Intel Corporation and helmet manufacturer Riddell to simulate collisions on the football field. This process enables a comparison with similar impacts that cause no injury. The predictive analysis will then lead to the design of new and improved helmets with the ability to track hits and identify real-time potential injuries via an embedded microchip.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, approximately 85 percent of sports-related concussions are typically undiagnosed, which can negatively affect players’ health and well-being, both short and long term. According to Dr. Szczyrba, many people share the misconception that no injury is sustained if the skull is not broken. In fact, in many closed head-injury cases, very serious injuries, are sustained within an intact skull. As an avid skier, Dr. Szczyrba’s desire to contribute to the field of mathematical sciences is compelled by the adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

“Some of the most dangerous [traumatic brain] injuries are those that you cannot diagnose immediately,” said Dr. Szczyrba. “According to National Institute of Health statistics, millions are affected every year. Traumatic brain injuries cost societies not only financially but also in physical harm. It is almost impossible to recover 100 percent.”


Dr. Szczyrba described the brain as “a physical medium — like Jell-O,” housed within the skull, with no void space, and incompressible since it is essentially 80 percent water. When different portions of the brain move, regardless of how slight, a critical strain on the veins and neurons can occur.

bikers“The model helps us understand how the brain reacts to the different movements, which then predicts which brain matter is displaced and which neurons could be damaged. The head injury criterion is currently well established for translation, as when the head moves from front to back or from side to side. However, we are trying to develop a new brain injury criterion for rotations as well since there is no good measure currently,” Dr. Szczyrba said. He and his team examine real-life instances depicting head movements that occur during various accidents.

Computer simulations are instrumental in the design of improved brain injury criteria and may ultimately be used by physicians to guide diagnosis of actual brain injuries, Dr. Szczybrz reports. Computer simulations have already helped advance the study of traumatic brain injuries in accidents, such as those involving automobiles, leading to safer features in vehicle interiors. Other potential implications of the research could improve protective sporting helmets.

“An injured brain can heal and even adapt, but it might not be back to 100 percent,” said Dr. Szczyrba, stressing the importance of being aware of the devastating reality of traumatic brain injuries and the need to take protective measures.